Living Bird Magazine
Royal TernThalasseus maximus
- ORDER: Charadriiformes
- FAMILY: Laridae
A sleek seabird of warm saltwater coasts, the Royal Tern lives up to its regal name with a tangerine-colored bill and ragged, ink-black crest against crisp white plumage. Royal Terns fly gracefully and slowly along coastlines, diving for small fish, which they capture with a swift strike of their daggerlike bills. They are social birds, gathering between fishing expeditions on undisturbed beaches and nesting in dense, boisterous colonies. In late summer and fall, Royal Terns lose most of their black crest and sport a white forehead.More ID Info
Find This Bird
Royal Terns are often among the first birds a visitor sees at the seashore, along with species such as Laughing Gulls and Brown Pelicans. Listening for the distinctive call (ka-rreet!) is a good way to locate this species. Among the many species of terns at North American beaches, Royal Terns are among the largest, outsized only by the Caspian Tern.
- Charrán Real (Spanish)
- Sterne royale (French)
- Cool Facts
- In Southern California in the early 1950s, populations of the Pacific sardine crashed while northern anchovy numbers boomed. The area’s abundant Royal Terns, which fed heavily on the sardine, became quite rare. However, the smaller Elegant Tern, which had been rare, suddenly became abundant and has remained so through the present. Royal Terns have slowly increased to about three dozen pairs in Southern California, most in San Diego County (as of 2019).
- Royal Tern chicks leave the nest scrape within one day after hatching and congregate in a group known as a crèche (“nursery”), which can contain thousands of chicks ranging in age from 2–35 days old. Each Royal Tern parent feeds only its own chick, finding it in the crowd probably by recognizing its call.
- Like many tern species, Royal Terns in their colonies perform a group behavior that is called a “dread” or a “panic.” Virtually all the breeding birds in the colony rise up slowly and fly together in silence over the colony site for up to 20 minutes. These flights typically happen early during colony formation, but it’s not known why. Normally, Royal Tern colonies are very noisy places, even at night.
- The Royal Tern makes its nest scrape on the ground of low-lying islands. The pair defecates directly on the nest rim, perhaps to reinforce the nest against flooding. After a few weeks, the nest rim hardens.
- The oldest recorded Royal Tern was at least 30 years, 6 months old when it was found in Belize in 2013. It had been banded in North Carolina in 1983.